Volunteerism: Sham or Sincerity?

Authored by: Alison Lee.

Merriam-Webster defines volunteer (verb) as, “to offer to do something without being forced to or without getting paid to do it.”

With the rise of corporate volunteerism, I’ve been thinking about how this definition of volunteering is beginning to change. Many companies these days have programs that pay their employees to participate in a service project on company time. From the perspective of the receiving organization, the Oregon Food Bank for example, these groups truly are volunteers, as the food bank is not paying them for their work. Yet on the other hand, these groups are getting paid by their companies to volunteer their time on the company’s bill. In the grand scheme of things, the technicalities don’t seem to be of significant detail; the work that needed to be done at the food bank was done; the corporations are still operating at a net gain; and the food bank didn’t have to allocate any of their funds to get this work done. Those funds can then be put to use for providing more meals to those in need. The need for volunteers isn’t limited to just the food bank either; the other organizations I work with also would not be able to run without their volunteers, as is the case for many non-profits.

But what does this mean for the future of service? If service isn’t done for the sake of service but with the expectation of a reward, we begin to lose our sense of community and accountability for one another—and not just on the individual level. Some of the companies that run these volunteer programs are guilty of human rights violations, labor exploitation, and unsustainable environmental practices. Running volunteer programs doesn’t exempt these companies from having to address their company practices nor does it clear their conscience. Is it enough that these companies rectify their wrongdoings by paying their employees to do good? I don’t believe so, because the magnitude of the company’s impact far exceeds that of the impact created through volunteer programs. Do not misunderstand me—volunteering is still a great way of giving back and necessary for many organizations. But when this occurs on a corporate level—that is, on the company’s dime, perhaps we need to start thinking about why the company is willing to pay their employees to volunteer.


2 thoughts on “Volunteerism: Sham or Sincerity?

  1. I’ve struggled with similar questions, Alison. The Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke was a great resource for me to explore the ethics of service, both as a student and as an employee in my first job after graduation. Christine Bader, a member of Kenan’s advisory board, has done excellent work in the realm of Corporate Social Responsibility. You might like to check out her website and TedTalk.

    I am also including here a blog post (unedited) I wrote for a class in divinity school on Markets, Justice, and Christian Ethics:

    Resisting Dualism: Changing the Ideological Framework of the Nonprofit Sector

    I was introduced to this TED Talk by Dan Pallotta over the summer when my work with the Pro Humanitate Institute included sitting in on seminars for a Summer Nonprofit Immersion Program for Wake Forest undergraduates. At the time I was also working at a nonprofit, Greensboro Urban Ministry, addressing the social causes of hunger and homelessness. My vocational formation currently progresses in the in-between-ness of congregational and nonprofit fields as I consider the framework from which I want to offer my ministry and my public theological voice. So, then, Pallota’s evaluation of the “belief system,” or ideology, that governs the nonprofit sector sparks my interest. This is another exploration of the praxis epistemology—theory informing practice and moral practices becoming the moral truth for society—that Rebecca Todd Peters notes in the ethical paradigms of globalization.

    Pallotta calls philanthropy the market of love, the “market for all those people for whom there is no other market coming,” such as the homeless, hungry, and disabled. In this statement alone he reveals a potential moral limit to a capitalist market system. We have noted how the market system works much better for those who already have resources than those who do not, which undercuts agency and participation; and then our attitude towards those not participating in the same way is often shame or judgment. Pallotta claims that the nonprofit sector is crucial for creating “a world that works for everyone, with no one and nothing left out.” This is a world that my faith also calls me to create.

    And yet, the nonprofit sector, like the church, interacts with the profit motivated capitalist system that dominates social coordination in our world. Pallotta outlines five ways that the nonprofit sector is discriminated against as compared to the for-profit sector: 1) Compensation – we are uneasy about using money to incentivize this work. Business executives are not necessarily being greedy, but rather strategic. He outlines a scenario in which an executive could donate $100,000 to a charity annually and still come out markedly ahead, generously support a worthy cause and be called a philanthropist, probably sit on the board for the nonprofit, and have a lifetime of power and influence in both realms. 2) Advertising and Marketing – a stark portrayal of our lack of prioritization is that charitable giving has remained stagnant at 2% GDP since measurements began in the 1970s. 3) Risk – when we prohibit failure, we inhibit innovation. 4) Time – we do not allow nonprofits the necessary time to increase their scale. 5) Profit – nonprofits simply don’t have the profits to attract further risk capital. In these five ways we have set up a dualism between cause and overhead, which leads to the “demoralizing objective” of keeping charity overhead low.

    In a turn that caught my attention more after our discussion of the Protestant work ethic and Calvinism setting up the conditions for capitalism, Pallotta traces this dichotomized belief system between the nonprofit and for-profit sectors back to the Puritans (“like most fanatical dogma in the U.S.”). He calls charity the “economic sanctuary” where Puritans could “do penance for their profit-making tendencies.” We’ve been taught by this tradition that we cannot make money in charity and cannot encourage investment in growth, and therefore we’ve confused morality with frugality. Pallotta sees here a profoundly limiting ideological root for the way we approach social causes, and asks that it be revisited and revised.

    I admire his vision. He wants to imagine a different basis for our engagement with the most vulnerable, as a subset of work and economic coordination that better creates the conditions for flourishing for all of society. I do have a hesitation, however, about the potential corruption by market values. How does Pallotta’s vision fit with Sandel’s commitment to nonmarket values—including altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit (130)—that form us as interrelated human beings in civic and social life? The biography on Pallotta’s website describes his book Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential as contributing to a new conversation on the “economic freedom of the humanitarian sector.” Should we be wary of this language? Or can we utilize the strengths of the market in the intermediate areas of advertising, fundraising, etc. in order to advance the end of well-being for the most vulnerable (an end that is, for me, particularly significant theologically). Perhaps Pallotta has a compelling vision for navigating and reconciling intersecting moral frameworks in the public sphere.


  2. The discussion about Pallota’s ideas are important, given the what I’ve observed on the ground. I’ve worked for companies with volunteer programs, and I have a barter arrangement with a non-profit that gets a lot of help from corporate volunteers. And here’s the essential point: there are only so many hours in a day, and if people who want to volunteer can’t get time during the workday to do it, they won’t find time otherwise.

    When I was growing up in the 70s, I had an at-home mom who spent probably 20 hrs/week volunteering at the school, the local hospital, Girl Scouts, etc. We don’t have that volunteer workforce today. Corporate volunteering allows individuals who want to donate their time but don’t feel like they have any extra the chance to volunteer without feeling as if they are short-changing their families. Without corporate volunteering programs, there would probably be fewer volunteers. “Paying” people to volunteer values their time in a way that they would never value it otherwise, if you ask me.

    Are companies motivated by a desire to “clear their conscience” or get good publicity? Probably. So what? Getting companies to practice business in a socially conscious way is a long term proposition. Volunteering raises awareness of issues among employees who, over time, will shape the company’s practices–especially if they become managers and executives.


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